Long before “Downton Abbey” or “Upstairs Downstairs,” the British were writing plays about the social norms of the upper classes and their attitudes about the servants who catered to their needs and whims.
“She Stoops to Conquer,” the 1773 comedy of manners by Oliver Goldsmith, is an enduring portrayal of the gentleman with exquisite manners among his peers who becomes demanding and loutish when dealing with those he does not consider his equals. The play is often taught in literature and drama classes because it is such a perfect illustration of a timeless genre. It has all the classic elements — mistaken identity, star-crossed lovers, a conniving villain and the incorrigible rogue who overcomes all the obstacles to deliver a happy ending.
It is not, however, an easy play to perform. It is to the credit of director Dennis Smith and the theatre arts program at Southern Oregon University that they give us the Goldsmith play in its original. No updating here, no strategic editing — Smith has staged “She Stoops to Conquer” in all its restoration comedy bawdiness. Smith’s student cast manages the broadly physical pratfalls and the biting social satire with incredible skill.
As “She Stoops to Conquer” opens, we meet Mr. Hardcastle (Connor Chaney), a rather pompous but wealthy country gentleman. He has arranged a meeting for his daughter Kate (Mig Windows), with Charles Marlow (Kyle Sanderson), the son of a London friend, in the hope the two will marry. Unfortunately, the perfect suitor seems to have a flaw. He becomes incredibly shy and awkward in the company of ladies of his own social class. However, put a serving wench in front of him and Marlow becomes positively loquacious and downright randy.
Marlow sets out to the Hardcastle estate with his friend Hastings (Connor Bryant) for the arranged meeting. Hastings is courting Kate’s cousin, Constance (Aleah Zimmer), who lives with the Hardcastles. The men get lost and stop at a local, lower-class inn where they meet Tony Lumpkin (Erik Weiss), the impish and badly behaved stepbrother to Kate. Lumpkin plays a practical joke, tells the men they are far from the Hardcastle home but, in fact, directs them to the house, telling them it is a respectable inn.
On arrival, Marlow is barely polite to Hardcastle, thinking he is a pretentious innkeeper. Hastings catches on to Lumpkin’s joke when he sees Constance. The two of them contrive to have Marlow meet Kate as though she was stopping at the inn. Marlow is predictably awkward during their conversation, never looking at Kate’s face.
When Hastings and Constance assure Kate that Marlow can be absolutely charming if he is not intimidated by a woman’s status, she approaches him as the “barmaid.” Marlow doesn’t recognize her as Kate. He flatters, cajoles and does everything but drag her upstairs. It is only when the barmaid “reveals” that she is a well-born but poor relation of the Hardcastles that Marlow can approach her with a balance of ardor and romance. Thus, by pretending to be of a lower class, Kate “stoops” to conquer him.
Director Smith is an emeritus professor with the SOU Department of Theatre Arts. He wisely plays against Goldsmith’s stilted dialogue with broadly physical stage comedy, rapid pacing and impeccable timing. The entire cast effortlessly meshes the sublime with the ridiculous. These are actors to watch — especially freshman Weiss, who plays Lumpkin with absolute glee and an innate ability to improvise.
The professional-quality technical team of costume designer Clara Painter, lighting designer Kate Landon and sound designer Evan Carbone are also SOU students. SOU faculty scenic designer Sean O’Skea did the sets.
“She Stoops to Conquer” plays in SOU’s Center Stage Theatre through March 8. Performances run Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. (time corrected) Saturday, March 7, and Sunday, March 8. Tickets cost $21 for regular admission, $18 for seniors and $6 for students, and can be purchased by phone at 541-552-6358 or online at www.sou.edu/performingarts.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.